Mark Coker set up self-publishing and distribution platform Smashwords in 2008. Since then, Smashwords authors have published more than 5 billion words spread across more than 130,000 books, and it would be fair to say that Smashwords has been one of the most influential companies in terms of changing the way publishing works today. In this interview, he talks about the future of publishing, and about why there’s never been a better time to be an author.
Imagine you’ve been put in charge of one of the leading US publishing firms. You’re asked to come up with a new digital strategy for ebooks. Day one: what would be your first move?
I’d abolish DRM, increase author royalties, increase distribution, and develop a long tail strategy that would allow the publisher to take more chances on more authors. I’d also try to acquire Smashwords, since Smashwords is already doing everything above. In the past four years, we’ve helped over 47,000 authors around the world publish over 138,000 ebooks. Unfortunately for the publisher, Smashwords isn’t for sale.
Now imagine you’re sitting next to Stephen King or J.K. Rowling at a dinner party. How would you try to persuade a big name to leave the traditional publishing world and go the Smashwords route instead? Do you think a big name will ever completely embrace the self-publishing route?
Many big names are already starting to wade into the self-publishing waters, inspired by fellow traditionally published authors who are now achieving greater success as an indie than they ever achieved under a publisher.
It’s not necessary for cautious authors to immediately abandon traditional publishing to benefit from the indie ebook revolution, nor is it necessarily smart to abandon your publisher if they’re doing good work for you. I’d explain that today, a major advantage of working with a traditional book publishers is that they’re best qualified to sell print books through brick and mortar retailers, but this advantage is quickly dissipating as physical bookstores disappear and as consumer preferences shift to the ebook format. I’d describe the rise of ebooks, and how ebooks will account for close to 30% of book sales here in the US in 2012, up from 20% the year before, 8% the year before that, and 3% the year before that. I’d explain how it’s only a matter of time before ebooks are outselling all print books. I’d explain that with ebooks, you no longer need a publisher to achieve full distribution to all stores.
Next, I’d explain the advantages of indie ebook publishing, including greater royalties (60-80% list indie vs 12-17% list with traditional), faster time-to-market (instant vs 12-18 months), greater creative control, the ability to reach more readers and build platform with more affordably priced ebooks, plus the benefit of controlling all their rights. When an author goes indie today, they’re not necessarily closing the door on traditional. Many indies have started indie, proven a large commercial market for their book, and then sold the rights to a large publisher for a high price. Indie publishing opens doors for great authors.
Next, I’d challenge them to examine what their publisher is doing for them that they cannot already do for themselves, or that they don’t want to do for themselves. If the publisher’s doing a great job, great! Keep them.
Next, I’d ask them to honestly examine if some of the publisher’s policies and practices, such as high ebook prices, low royalties, DRM and limited worldwide distribution, are harming the author’s ability to reach readers.
I’d encourage them to straddle both worlds for now, and experiment. First, they should indie publish any out of print, reverted-rights books, because those are important assets the author should get working for them today, and these books will help attract new readers that will then seek out their traditionally published works. Next, publish your unpublished works as an indie ebook. Maybe you have short stories that could be published as collections, or you have unsold manuscripts.
Different authors will make the move at different times. The early adopters over the last few years are the ones who will be the NY Times bestsellers of tomorrow. Eventually, traditionally published authors will realize that they’re disadvantaging themselves by continuing to publish exclusively through the old system.
Self-publishing used to be seen as vanity publishing, which was seen as a pejorative term. Do you think the stigma surrounding traditional vanity publishing is fair, and has it transferred to the new era of self-publishing?
Four years ago when we started Smashwords, many people viewed self-publishing as the option of last resort for failed authors. We knew better. We believed that indies were the future of publishing. Today, self-publishing is gaining increased credibility. Self-publishing is now the option of first choice for many authors. Many indies aren’t even bothering to shop their new works to publishers. If I were a publisher with half a brain, this last fact would terrify me to death. If the next generation of authors decides to bypass publishers and publish directly to their readers, publishers are in trouble because they’ll lose their product pipeline.
Publishers are in a tough spot. I think today, more authors still aspire to that traditional publishing contract, but I would argue that the percentage is decreasing each month. Over the next couple years, we’ll see more authors aspiring to go and remain indie, and fewer authors aspiring to go and remain traditional. At a certain point, more authors will aspire to indie than traditional, and when that happens, we’ll start talking about the stigma of traditional publishing. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate sign of vanity, to publish with a traditional publisher simply because you think their name confers some special status to you as an author? The reality is that readers don’t care about the name of the publisher on the book’s virtual spine. They care about the quality of the book, and they care about the author.
The advantages of indie publishing mentioned above – such as higher royalties, faster time-to-market, the ability to reach more readers with your words, and the greater creative freedom – will make it really difficult for authors to remain 100% traditional. It’ll also become increasingly difficult for traditional publishers to compete. As I write this, for example, Smashwords authors have four of the top 20 bestselling titles in the Apple iBookstore. Readers are making the shift to indie and don’t even know it. Indie authors are writing books that are as good or better than traditionally published books, and they’re offering these books at lower prices to their customers. Even at lower prices, indies are still earning more for each copy they sell because their royalty rate is 3-4 times higher than what traditional authors earn.
You said in 2010 that he didn’t think serial ebooks would catch on. But it seems to me that as long as they’re clearly marked as installments in a longer series, serial ebooks could be a big hit. What is Smashwords’ current policy regarding serial ebooks?
Our policy remains the same. Customer feedback over the last two years, and recent hard data, has only reinforced our belief that most customers prefer complete, full-length books. A couple months ago, we researched our bestselling titles across all retailers and found that customers strongly prefer longer, full-length books over shorter books. You can view the survey at the Smashwords blog, here.
The results are surprising, because when ebooks first came on the scene, many industry prognosticators predicted that readers would demand shorter form content.
Imagine you’re an author, and you’ve written a great story that comprises 100,000 words. It’s much more convenient for customers to purchase your complete story all at once, rather than purchase it in 20, 5,000-word installments. With 20 installments, they’d have to go to the trouble of searching for the next book, entering their payment information 20 times, and downloading and loading 20 different files. It’s not a good customer experience. Customers have too many distractions from competing content, and if you artificially withhold content via a delayed, serialized publishing schedule, or if you force them to purchase multiple books as opposed to a single book, then more customers will gravitate to other books by other authors. If you’re serializing a work in progress, it probably means the book hasn’t been fully edited. A full length story is usually better than a work in progress.
The recent controversy over PayPal and erotica was a reminder that payment service providers still have huge power. Do you think the resolution of that saga was a permanent victory, or do you think it’s a sign that erotica will eventually be squeezed out of the ebook mainstream?
I think the situation served as a reminder to everyone, not just our authors, that when freedom of expression is threatened, if we stick together and work together we can find a solution. As we witnessed in the PayPal situation, and what some don’t realize, is that it wasn’t just erotica that was threatened. While erotica was clearly the focus of the debate, based on the broad definitions used when Smashwords was first notified, thousands of mainstream romance titles were also threatened. And therein lies the problem with any censorship issue. Once you get started, it’s a very slippery slope. If we were to not allow certain situations in erotica or romance, then why should it be okay to publish mainstream fiction that includes violence or rape? To PayPal’s credit, they listened to our community and ultimately decided that legal fiction is legal fiction, that fiction is fantasy, and that they shouldn’t be in the business of censoring what readers are allowed to read. I don’t think it was a permanent victory. We must still be wary of those who might seek to adopt policies that moralize what readers can and cannot read. If you write erotica or romance, and you’re exploring themes that touch on rape, dubious consent, incest, pseudo-incest or bestiality, you’re at higher risk of facing future crackdown from retailers. If you write violent thrillers or mysteries, watch your back and support the free speech of your fellow writers, even if they’re writing books you don’t enjoy yourself. We’re all in this together.
There has been a lot of discussion about ebook pricing recently. Do you think it’s reasonable for an ebook version of a novel to cost the same as the physical book? Do you think we’ll see a general reduction in ebook prices from the big publishers?
Customers expect ebooks to be priced lower than print books because there’s no paper, and the reader assumes there are lower distribution costs. Informed readers know there are also no risks of product returns. In traditional publishing, it’s not uncommon for a retailer to ship 20-30% of inventory back to the publisher, unsold. Yes, I think we’ll see a general reduction in ebook prices from the big publishers. Consumers already have a glut of high quality books to choose from, so this forces both indies and traditional publishers to compete on price. We published a survey a few months ago that found that even indie ebooks are trending lower in price as indies compete for readers. Read the results here at the Smashwords blog. The publishers are in a tough spot. They’re stuck in antiquated business models with a ton of overhead to contend with. Ebooks took off because they offered consumers more convenience, a better selection and cheaper prices. If consumers feel your product is overpriced, they will find an alternative product at a price that suits them. If publishers don’t lower their prices, they’ll lose more readers.
There’s a lot of talk about ebook piracy, but some people say the threat is exaggerated. How big a problem do you think it really is, and do you think DRM is a solution? Or should it just be tolerated so long as it doesn’t get out of hand?
We think piracy is essentially a non-issue, and authors shouldn’t worry about it. Piracy is often a symptom of unmet demand – it’s a result of publishers generating demand for a book, but not fulfilling that demand by making the book accessible and/or affordable to their readers. The best way to prevent piracy is to make it easier to purchase a legal copy than to search out and obtain an illegal one. The most common form of piracy is what we think of as accidental piracy: It’s an enthusiastic fan who loves your book so much they share it with a friend. Rather than viewing that as piracy, we think it’s better to view that as low cost marketing. Book marketing has always been about word of mouth. If a reader helps introduce you to a new reader, be thankful.
The only way to prevent all piracy is to not publish. We believe obscurity is a bigger threat than piracy. DRM is not a complete solution, and the downside of DRM is that it makes your book less appealing to honest, legal customers, because it limits their ability to enjoy your book across the multiple devices they may own today or in the future.
There was a lot of controversy when Amazon launched KDP Select, particularly because of the exclusivity clause. We’re now seeing authors getting upwards of $1.60 per borrow at Amazon. What would you say to an author who’s considering pulling their books from other sites and going ‘all in’ at Amazon?
We discussed our views at length on our blog back in December. I also discuss the pitfalls of exclusivity in my new ebook, The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. I’ll recap some of the main points. As mentioned above, when we talked about piracy, the greatest threat to an author’s career is obscurity. Retailers invest millions of dollars on book marketing and discovery technology that helps connect readers with your books. If you remove your titles from all of those online stores, you significantly reduce your chances of being discovered by readers.
Also, while many authors are tempted to just “give it a try” for a few months, they underestimate the long term harm they might be causing to their writing career. What they don’t realize is that once they remove their ebooks from a retailer, it kills their sales rankings that they’ve spent months or years trying to build. Readers who shop at these other retailers will purchase other books from other authors. These readers will become missed opportunities, and they’ll be more difficult to reach in the future. This forces authors to become more dependent on Amazon. We think Amazon’s an awesome retailer, but just as an investment advisor would caution you against investing your entire retirement nest egg in a single stock, we think authors shouldn’t allow themselves to become dependent on a single retailer. Diversify your exposure.
Also realize that over the last few years, Amazon’s share of the ebook market has declined, from possibly as high as 90% to around 60% today. As this trend continues – and we think it will continue thanks to the success of Apple, Barnes & Noble and others – other retailers in the aggregate will become more important than Amazon. When we look at the bestselling authors at Smashwords, it took many of them many months, sometimes years, before their books broke out. Recently we interviewed author R.L. Mathewson at the Smashwords blog, and we included a chart of her sales at the Apple iBookstore. For many months, she was selling modestly, but then suddenly she broke out and today, as I write this (July 16), she has the #7 best-selling title at Apple. Imagine if her book was exclusive to Amazon. She would have missed out on this fantastic run at Apple, a run that isn’t over yet. She now has multiple titles in the top 20. When an author goes exclusive anywhere, they’re making a decision to shut themselves out of the broader market.
There are a lot of self-publishing platforms popping up these days. What sets Smashwords apart from the competition?
At Smashwords we make it fast, free and easy to publish your ebook and reach multiple retailers and a global audience. You simply upload your book once, and then we distribute it to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Baker & Taylor, Kobo, Diesel and others. If you want to update your book, you make one change in your Smashwords Dashboard, and that change propagates out to our retailers. We make it possible for authors to spend more time writing and less time managing multiple retailer relationships. We make it possible for authors to reach retailers though Smashwords that they couldn’t reach on their own. We’re constantly working to add new distribution outlets, and we’re always adding new features to the platform that puts indies in greater control of their publishing.
We provide many free resources to help authors get started and take charge of their careers, such as the Smashwords Style Guide mentioned above (downloaded about 200,000 times and regarded as the “bible of ebook formatting”), the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and the just-released The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. These free resources are useful to all authors, even if they don’t use Smashwords.
Finally, what would you say to someone who is preparing to launch their first self-published novel? Is it a good time to be a new author?
There has never been a better time to be an author. Publishing and distribution have been democratized, and you have the ability to reach a worldwide audience with your words. While we make it fast, free and easy to publish and distribute an ebook, we don’t make it easy to write a great book. That part’s up to the author. The most important marketing secret is to write a book that markets itself. If you honor your readers with a great book, they will honor your work by telling a friend.
Thanks to Mark Coker for taking the time to answer the questions, and to Jim Azevedo for setting things up.